New M’Chigeeng grocery store opens to Island customers’ accolades

M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige welcomes the Island community into the new grocery store. The sign above the door reads “Hello, come on in!” in Anishinaabemowin. photo by Michael Erskine

M’CHIGEENG—Dreams do come true, although it may take a few decades and the hard work of a host of determined people. The M’Chigeeng First Nation welcomed Manitoulin to their new grocery store last week and it didn’t take long before the compliments came pouring in along with the customers.

“It has been almost 40 years that our community has been working towards this day,” said M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige. The chief was beaming as she welcomed people from communities all across Manitoulin Island and beyond as they stopped into the brand new facility located on Highway 551 beside the UCCMM Castle Building Material Supply Centre. “It was former Chief Joe Hare who really made a push for it in 2012-2013. He did a lot of the ground work to start it.”

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige noted that although four decades have passed since the concept first began to rise on the wish list of her community, it was really in the last two terms of the band council that the dream began to take concrete shape. “We have been concentrating really hard on it during the last two councils,” she said. 

“I am really excited about the new grocery store,” admitted Ogimaa-kwe Debassige. “We are really grateful for the support that has been shown from customers from all over the Island.”

The grocery store team estimates that more than 500 people came out to visit the first day. “There were probably a lot more than that because we are just going by the number of transactions,” she said.

Not only is the new store the fulfilment of a dream of being able to shop for groceries in their own community, the economic implications for M’Chigeeng are nothing short of amazing.

The staff at the new M’Chigeeng grocery store pause for a photo before opening the doors for the first time. The new store will be a huge economic boon to the community with over 30 full-time jobs created. The staff went through four weeks of intensive training and another two weeks of job-specific hands-on training to prepare to serve the Island community.

“We estimate that we will have 30-plus full time employees,” said assistant manager Steven Debassige. For a small rural community, that number of new jobs will provide a major economic boost with an attendant multiplier effect that will have spinoff benefits for the entire Island economy.

The workforce includes two fulltime administration staff, Mr. Debassige and bookkeeper Cheyanne McGraw, but the store boasts a full complement of staff whose training in customer service will be second to none. “That’s what I named my race car in scouts,” chuckled Mr. Debassige. “Second to none is a great motto to move forward.”

Mr. Debassige explained that the staff underwent four weeks of intensive training before taking part in two weeks of “hands on job specific training.”

The store offers a wide selection of standard grocery store fare, including a produce department featuring fresh fruits and vegetables, but also hosts some harder to get products that are near and dear to the store’s home community.

Marshal Migwans, baker Pam Roy and Summer Beaudin are all smiles behind the store’s new deli counter.

“We have fresh scone available,” said baker Pam Roy, whose famous home-baked products will have to take a back seat to her new gig. “No we don’t,” laughed Summer Beaudin, who was working behind the deli counter. “We sold out again. People have been walking out with their arms full of them.”

“It’s going to take a bit of time to get everything balanced out,” admitted Mr. Debassige, as Ms. Roy headed back to the production table. “We have been asking our customers to let us know what they would like us to get in and we will do our best to accommodate them.”

Wandering about the deli it doesn’t take long to spot the big soup turns filled with traditional corn and three sisters soup. Both items have been headed out the door almost as fast as the scone. “We are looking at doing a wild rice soup as well,” said Mr. McGraw, “but we are having some challenges sourcing the wild rice.”

Soon cans of hominy corn will be finding their way onto the shelves as well, if all things go as planned, but for right now Ms. Roy’s deli offerings have been taking up the available supply.

“We have PC and No Name brand products as well,” said Mr. McGraw. “A lot of people are happy they don’t have to travel outside the community to pick up those brand items.”

Meat supervisor Bill McGregor noted that some customer service has to include a customer education component. “We have a couple of people asking about things like beef tenderloin, which is fine, but it costs about $800 a case to bring that in and we have to be sure we can sell it, not everyone wants to buy a full case,” he chucked. “But we are going to do our best to have what people want, so if you don’t see it, ask, and we will do our best to get it in.”

The store operations will be very high-tech, one new system coming in is an employee check in scanner that utilizes fingerprints to clock in—but everything has its reasons. “It will save Cheyanne a lot of time inputting information,” said Mr. Debassige.

Missy Corbiere and Gayle Payette were the first two customers through the till at the new grocery store in M’Chigeeng.

Down the road the grocery store hopes to implement the wide range of products, including things like PC Optimum and PC Financial, said Ogimaakwe Debassige. “We are looking into a lottery terminal as well.”

Meanwhile, children from the local daycare and Lakeshore School have been coming in to visit their new community store and learning about math and other skills, noted the chief.

A new pharmacy will be joining the grocery store in the business complex shortly, with a pharmacist who is a member of the M’Chigeeng band.

“She doesn’t just pass out pills either,” said Ogimaa-kwe Debassige. “She builds compounds that are specific to the treatment of the individual, so it is a lot more like our traditional medicines and a lot of it is topical, you apply it to the skin to be absorbed.”

A new artisan incubation centre is also fast coming together where businesses and local artists will be able to gather, learn and ply their wares.

There are two units that will be looking for businesses to settle into their forever homes—those businesses will find the location very attractive considering the anchors of a grocery store and a pharmacy will be there to draw in the traffic. “We are looking to not have limits,” said Ogimaa-kwe Debassige.

There are still a few finishing touches to complete in the complex, the painting for handicapped parking spaces and elders’ parking will have to wait until the weather makes paint a bit more permanent.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Ogimaa-kwe Debassige, “but it is progressing.”